His work is portentous, his ideas useless. Bloom's reputation needs puncturing if literary criticism is again to be taken seriouslyby Joseph Epstein / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, has been on a roll. His last two major books, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, were both bestsellers-unusual in itself for works of such high intellectual pretension. When the latter came out in paperback, its US publisher sent out a vast number of copies in its own special floor display, a la John Grisham. Bloom has recently won a MacArthur Fellowship, better known as a genius grant or a Big Mac; been chosen to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard; and been awarded the gold medal for criticism by the American Academy of Arts & Letters, of which he is also a member. The Washington Post called Bloom one of the three most important literary critics writing in English in the 20th century-the other two being FR Leavis and Edmund Wilson. Bloom’s success is of a peculiarly American kind and yet not easily fathomed. As a critic, he is not that accessible and is capable of producing strikingly pretentious prose. (“Like Thoreau, Whitman has a touch of the Bhagavad-Gita, but the Hindu vision is mediated by western hermeticism, with its Neoplatonic and Gnostic elements.”) He claims to be of the school of aesthetic critics, saying that, “I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic.” Yet he himself doesn’t produce anything approaching the aesthetically pleasing in his own writing. In an interview in the Paris Review, he declared that he never revises his prose, and nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim. Any critic ready to avail himself of such gargoylesque words as “psychokabbalistic” and “pneumognostic,” or who can write about the cosmos having been “reperspectivised by Tolstoy,” may be many things, but he ain’t no aesthete. Nor does Bloom project an attractive, let alone a seductive, character. He is not the charmingly nutty type, but rather the exhaustingly garrulous professor. Such is Bloom’s loquacity that he discovered, in the midst of his psychoanalysis, that he was paying to give his analyst lectures “several times a week on the proper way to read Freud.” Bloom writes like a man accustomed to speaking to his inferiors-to students, that is, a captive audience. To them he may lay down the law, take great pleasure in his own performance, be utterly unworried about someone coughing politely and saying, “Excuse me, pal, but what you just said seems to me a bunch of bullshit!” Harold Bloom resembles no one so much as Zero Mostel, with something of the same physique and verbal mania but none of the amusing punchlines. Such laughs as are to be found in Bloom are all unconsciously created on his part. In The Western Canon, he reports that every time he re-reads Bleak House he cries whenever Esther Summerson does, “and I don’t think I’m being sentimental.” In the same book, he also reports that he uses the poems of Walt Whitman to assuage grief. “I remember one summer, in crisis, being at Nantucket with a friend who was absorbed in fishing, while I read aloud to both of us from Whitman and recovered myself again.” Poor friend, one feels, and poor fish. Critics come in varying styles: from subtle, self-effacing and sardonic, to oracular, vatic, apocalyptic and plain intelligent. The one quality indispensable to the critic, however, is authoritativeness. Edmund Wilson put the case for authority in criticism best: “The implied position of the people who know about literature (as in every other fine art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know.” Bloom has had no problem mastering the tone of authoritativeness. If he came off any more ex cathedra in his judgments, he’d be Pope. He is all assertion and no proof. Samuel Johnson is, for Bloom, “unmatched by any critic in any nation before or after him.” Oscar Wilde “was right about everything.” Tolstoy’s story “Hadji Mur”; is his “touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world.” And then there is Emily Dickinson, who, “at the height of her powers,” is “the best mind to appear among western poets in nearly four centuries.” What’s that qualificatory “nearly” doing there, one wonders. And why not round it off, and make it an even half millennium? Bloom presents himself as a genius battling his way through the dark forces of the ignorant. He ranges across literatures, absorbs religious ideas, swallows whole cultures, happily making pronunciamentos upon them as he passes. His pretension rate is outside the solar system. In The Book of J, for example, he argued that the real author of the Hebrew Bible was a woman who belonged to the Solomonic elite and wrote during the reign of Rehoboam. Every serious scholar on the subject shot holes in this notion. Yet, to this day, Bloom placidly refers to the “J writer” as if his speculation is the unshakeable truth. Born in 1930, Bloom began his professional life as a critic of Romantic poetry, and quite a good one, as his book The Visionary Company shows. But his ambition grew and he soon became the intellectual equivalent of the character in PG Wodehouse who looked as if he was poured into his clothes and forgot to say when. The sensible Bloom still occasionally peeks through. “You cannot teach someone to love great poetry if they come to you without that love,” he writes in The Western Canon. “How can you teach solitude?” But for many years now bombast and confident obscurity have been his reigning notes. “The personality of the critic is much deprecated in our time,” Bloom wrote in The Western Canon. Sad, because the great critic-that would be Professor Bloom-is engaged in a dramatic struggle at a depth and with an accompanying danger beyond our imagining. In Kabbalah and Criticism, Bloom writes that “reading is defensive warfare, however generously or joyously we read.” If you are what Bloom calls a “strong reader,” it gets even worse, as he notes in his A Map of Misreading: “Such a reader… self-deconstructed yet fully knowing the pain of his separation both from text and from nature, doubtless will be more than equal to the revisionary labours of contraction and destruction, but hardly to the antithetical restoration that increasingly becomes part of the burden and function of whatever valid poetry we have left or may yet receive.” It’s enough to make you turn in your library card. Writing, it turns out, isn’t much easier. “One writes to keep going, to keep oneself from going mad,” Bloom told his Paris Review interviewer. “Maybe it’s an apotropaic gesture, maybe one writes to ward off death.” As with writing criticism, so with teaching literature: “The various times I have taught [Emily Dickinson’s] poems have left me with fierce headaches, since the difficulties force me past my limits.” Bloom is that most comic of unconscious comic figures: the academic Dionysian, calling for higher fires, more dancing girls, music, and wine, all from an endowed chair. His literary taste runs to the hot-blooded, long-winded and apocalyptic: Blake, Whitman, Nietzsche, DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer are among the writers who light our ageing professor’s fire. Apart from Shakespeare, Bloom’s great culture heroes are Emerson and Freud, who, in combination, yield a gasbag with a dirty mind. “Why criticism has not addressed itself to the image of masturbation in Whitman,” Bloom writes, “I scarcely know.” A critic’s work, as you can see, is never done. “Criticism,” Bloom has said, “is either a genre of literature or it is nothing.” But criticism becomes literature only when it satisfies one of two standards. The first is that it be so well-written that it gives some of the same pleasure that literature itself does. William Hazlitt, Edmund Wilson and VS Pritchett qualify here. Bloom, whose writing is charitably described as “difficult” by his Yale colleague, John Hollander, does not. The second way criticism can qualify as literature is through the elucidating power of its ideas. Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, TS Eliot, FR Leavis and, perhaps, Northrop Frye qualify. It is here that Bloom would no doubt wish to stake his claim. Bloom has been known as a man with a “big idea.” The idea is named in the first of three books he devoted to it, The Anxiety of Influence (the others are A Map of Misreading and Kabbalah and Criticism). Written in prose with the translucency of isinglass, these books, as the Germans say, sie lassen sich nicht lesen-do not permit themselves to be read. Still, one can make out their broader lineaments. The big idea, which was more modestly and lucidly first put forth by W Jackson Bate, the biographer of Dr Johnson and Coleridge, is that writers feel haunted by their predecessors, causing them to feel sorely belated, as if everything they wish to do has already been done before them. Weaker writers are crushed by this, the idea holds, but strong writers go on to challenge and sometimes surpass their precursors. As a theory of literary influence, based on the psychology of authorship, Bloom’s idea has not been taken up either by his fellow academics or by practising critics. So far as one can determine, The Anxiety of Influence has had very little influence and appears to have caused anxiety chiefly in Harold Bloom, who claims that few people really understand it. A characteristic passage from the book may indicate why not: What is the primal scene, for a poet as poet? It is his poetic father’s coitus with the muse. There he was begotten? No-there they failed to beget him. He must be self-begotten, he must engender himself upon the muse his mother. But the muse is as pernicious as the sphinx or coevering cherub, and may identify herself with either, though more usually with the sphinx. The strong poet fails to beget himself-he must wait for his son, who will define him even when he has defined his own poetic father. To beget here means to usurp, and is the dialectical labour of the cherub. Bloom sees literary influence everywhere, and his claims have the clarity that only freedom from evidence or consecutive argument give. In The Western Canon, Bloom tells us that “Shakespeare is everywhere in Freud, far more present when unmentioned than when he is cited.” Then the plot quickens, thickens, and sickens: “Freud, as prose-poet of the post-Shakespearean, sails in Shakespeare’s wake; and the anxiety of influence has no more distinguished sufferer in our time than the founder of psychoanalysis, who always discovered that Shakespeare had been there long before him, and all too frequently could not bear to confront this humiliating truth.” How do we know? We know because Professor Bloom tells us so. Finding the anxiety of influence in your favourite writer may work better as an after-dinner game than it does in actual criticism, though Bloom thought his idea would change poetic history and provide “a wholly different practical criticism.” As with most Bloom, the anxiety of influence theory has a nice arbitrariness about it. Tennyson, Arnold, Hopkins and Rossetti, he tells us, felt anxiety over the influence of Keats, though among them, according to him, only Tennyson triumphed. Dostoevsky, like Freud, had to struggle free of the influence of Shakespeare (though this notion seems to have eluded Dostoevsky’s biographer Joseph Frank, who makes no mention of it in five volumes of biography). TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens felt anxious about the influence of Whitman. Ezra Pound had to square off against Browning. No one denies that literary influence exists, but it almost always does in ways too subtle for precise tracing. Does influence always necessitate anxiety, an agon (a favourite Bloom word), a misreading of a writer’s precursors? Nobody but Bloom seems to think so. As an idea, the anxiety of influence chiefly gets in the way; so that, for example, in his biography of Balzac, Graham Robb feels compelled to note: “The anxiety of influence is not much in evidence in Balzac’s early writings. Rather, he seems to be cheered on by his predecessors… If anything, Balzac was underwhelmed by the intellectual achievements of humanity.” Bloom seems happiest viewing the world locked in endless struggle. He sees himself in battle with the younger generation of American professors, amongst them feminists, new historicists, deconstructionists, Marxists-the rather pathetic motley that Bloom calls the “school of resentment.” He also sees fundamentalist religion and the spread of computers and television combined “into one rough beast,” presaging a future that would cancel out the literary canon. Something like a school of resentment does exist and, true enough, it is destroying literature as an academic subject. But in attacking these academics, Bloom portrays himself as the heroic outsider, single-handedly taking on the barbarian hordes. Not quite so. Bloom is an establishment man. He is the consummate literary politician, riding to hounds with those literary personages who have themselves already been declared winners. In contemporary literature, eschewing heterodoxy, he takes few chances, and none that are likely to cost him future emoluments or useful friends. Thus he attacks Alice Walker but lays off Toni Morrison. He everywhere pretends to condemn the stridently political in literature, yet in The Western Canon, in the section called “A Canonical Prophecy,” he lists Tony Kushner’s Angels in America-a play that is all politics and little else-as a likely canonical work of the future. If one runs down the names of contemporary poets he admires in this same appendix, these turn out for the most part to be the usual suspects, who each year award one another Pulitzer, Lannan, and other jolly prizes. The mystery is that Bloom, for all his nearly perfect unreadability, today finds himself in that small but lucky elite of writers whose books sell without being actually read. I spent a week ploughing through Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and I can only report that it is difficult to imagine anyone completing it who has not been paid to write about it. The Shakespeare book, too, has a large, useless idea at its centre-namely, that Shakespeare invented our feelings and way of feeling and so, through his plays, invented (or, as Bloom sometimes says, “reinvented”) human personality. Reading Bloom on this point is, as John Carey put it in the Times, “like chatting with an acquaintance and gradually realising he believes death rays are issuing from his television screen.” Bloom’s book on Shakespeare is a great ramble, play by play, in which he piles opinionation upon opinionation, agreeing with this critic, arguing with that, inserting bits of uninteresting academic autobiography, establishing his own superiority, providing as heavy-breathing a solipsistic performance as one is likely to find off a Beverly Hills psychoanalytic couch. Choice selections of Bloomian prose are the raisins in this indigestible pudding of a book: “Shakespeare’s uniqueness, his greatest originality, can be described either as a charismatic cognition, which comes from an individual before it enters group thinking, or as a cognitive charisma, which cannot be routinised.” As a work of bardolatry it succeeds in giving even Shakespeare a bad name. Genius, Bloom’s most recent book, is a thick compendium of what appears to be a collection of old prefaces cleaned up and recycled to look like fresh goods. Bloom loves to roll around in his rich pollution of isms-gnosticism, hermetism, et alia-and to substitute the religion of art for that of God. The book is organised, he informs the reader, along the lines of the Kabbalah, the key work of Jewish mysticism, though here, be assured, no tables levitate, no wine pours from the walls. For Bloom, great literature is not merely next to godliness, but a sign of godliness itself. All the usual tics are in place-the bardolatry, the “anxiety” chatter, the old grudges against his fellow English teachers. A reader who had never read anything else Bloom has written could have no notion of what, much of the time, he is talking about. He is so allusive as to border on the incomprehensible (“The Hermetists were Platonists who had absorbed the allegorical techniques of Alexandrian Jewry, and who developed the Jewish speculation concerning the first Adam, the Anthropos or Primal Man, called the Adam Kadmon in Kabbalah, and ‘a mortal god’ by the Hermetists.”) In a recent profile of Bloom in the New Yorker, he is quoted as remarking, apropos of lecturing at Oxford, “I watched the faces of my audience… and I saw blank incomprehension. I had a vision of an airplane flying over cows in a meadow.” A vision of reading Harold Bloom-my own-is of standing in an airfield and watching a cow fly over. The first of the two tasks Bloom has set himself in this large book is to defend the notion of genius in literature from what he takes to be its many detractors in university departments. Genius is “fiercely original,” he tells us, it “invokes the transcendental and the extraordinary, because it is fully conscious of them.” Genius, he argues, augments our consciousness: “however I have been entertained by a writer, has my awareness been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have encountered talent, not genius.” Much that is true here is not new, and the little bit that is new doesn’t feel very true. Bloom’s other task is “to activate the appreciation of genius in my readers.” I must confess to not having read every page of Genius-from the quality of its prose, my guess is that Bloom hasn’t either-but where I have kitchen-tested Bloom’s “appreciations” of his 100 geniuses, they do not add much to my appreciation. I have lately been reading Paul Valery, who qualifies as one of Bloom’s geniuses, but Bloom manages to evade much of the brilliant complexity of the Frenchman’s thought. On the other hand, I have never read the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz but reading about him in Genius, where only a tedious plot summary of his novel The Relic studded with lavish quotation is on offer, I am not eager to do so now. Bloom is altogether too self-regarding to be among the successful critical appreciators of literature. Most of the time one can’t get around Bloom himself to a clear view of his subject. Reading him is like watching a man pirouetting in front of a steaming bathroom mirror with a much too small towel round him. If every writer has an ideal reader, so must he have a perfectly antipathetic one. For Bloom this reader would, I believe, be Max Beerbohm, with his dislike of theory and distrust of genius. “Very exquisite literary artists seldom are men of genius,” Beerbohm wrote. “Genius tends to be careless of its strength. Genius is, by the nature of it, always in rather of a hurry. Genius can’t be bothered about perfection.” As a critic, Bloom has all these qualities, except, alas, the actual genius. TS Eliot once said that the best method for being a critic is to be very intelligent. Bloom is merely learned, in a wildly idiosyncratic way. He has staked out his claim for being a great critic through portentousness and extravagant pretension, and seems to have achieved it. This comes about, in part, through a lack of competition. What Randall Jarrell, half in rue, once called the age of criticism-the cavalcade of whose names include TS Eliot, Edmund Wilson, FR Leavis, Lionel Trilling, Erich Auerbach and Rene Wellek-seems to have been over for more than two decades, to be replaced by… well, by not much. In Europe there is George Steiner, who has all Bloom’s pomposity and pretension but none of what a wag-me, actually-once referred to as the latter’s modesty and lighthearted humour. Christopher Ricks and Denis Donoghue write careful and serious literary criticism, but neither seems to want to set up shop as omniscient in the way Bloom does. Frank Kermode, though very learned, writes with a modesty that is almost the reverse of Bloom’s assertiveness. Proust says that in art, medicine and fashion, there have to be new names, by which he meant that new names will arise whether they are worthy or not of being known. The same principle operates in literary criticism, where the name that has now popped up is Harold Bloom’s. But his is a reputation much in need of puncturing, if literary criticism is once again to be taken-and is to take itself-seriously.